Deaf Parents and their Hearing Children
A Research Report Prepared by Lorna Allsop and Jim Kyle
for The Deaf Studies Trust, Bristol, March 1997
Deaf Parents and their Hearing Children
One of the least understood aspects of Deaf life is the experience of Deaf people as parents. The vast majority, over 90%, have hearing children and this places inevitable pressure on child-rearing and family life. It is one of the features which marks Deaf people as different from other cultural minority groups and it emphasises the one-generational nature of the Deaf Community. Most Deaf people are born into hearing homes and themselves have hearing children. As a result, they are often under pressure from the two generations on either side, to give up their Deafness and to try to function on hearing terms. While this may seem realistic given the figures for minority-majority ratios, the result is isolating and debilitating. We have been unable to discover any research literature which focuses specifically on the issues for Deaf people who are raising hearing children.
Currently a great deal of research is directed towards hearing parents with Deaf children. Research has focused on the language development of the children, how parents adjust to their child and the effectiveness of services to families. But this may not be applicable to the situation of Deaf parents.
Although there are no formal reports of the difficulties Deaf parents may experience, informal evidence exists in the personal accounts of Deaf people, in the level of their requests for help to the BDA and in the stories of hearing children of Deaf parents (CODAs) discussing their childhood, to alert us to the fact that this situation is not without problems. In this small study we have begun to investigate Deaf peoples views on family life in respect of their hearing children. This research was carried out by Lorna Allsop.
Two workshops were set up. up. Twenty invitations were sent out to Deaf parents to attend the meetings which were arranged from 10.30am till 12.30pm on Saturdays in November and February. A creche was provided with one qualified worker and four volunteers. A total of 13 Deaf people came to the meetings with their children.
The first meeting focused on introduction and their own experiences of their family life. The second meeting focused on a review of the groups comments and on producing an agenda for future meetings.
The sessions were designed to be informal and open with some brainstorming around the topics of their life before children and after having children. The first meeting was more extensive in terms of the insights offered yet at the second meeting, further strong feelings appeared concerning such aspects as the problem of their children refusing to use BSL and how the parents had to deal with language choice at home.
Thirteen people participated in the meetings (all but one from hearing family):
The recordings were analysed for identification of the main areas of concern.
Responses by the participants
Most of the points below were raised in the first discussion group and reviewed in the second. In the latter, more time was devoted to forward planning and formulating a regular programme for the future. The discussion topics are set out in some categories for clarity.
Some of the issues that emerged from this group were similar to those that arise for all adults becoming parents. However, some issues were highly specific to being Deaf parents. Some of the following categories overlap to some extent eg freedom and choice and individuality; financial and structural and access to information ... some statements can fit in to more than one category. We have not analysed the statements in depth, preferring in this instance to allow the Deaf persons comments to stand on their own merit.
Flexibility and Choice
Flexibility and freedom of choice were highly valued. After parenthood, these became more restricted. Perhaps this is a more telling issue for Deaf parents than hearing parents because Deaf people tend to be far more mobile and face to face social contact is of greater significance than for hearing people. Deaf people have limited contact at a distance eg through telephone or letters.
A feeling of no longer being the centre of ones world is fairly usual for a person becoming a parent, regardless of whether they are Deaf or hearing:
These can be compared to the comments above with regard to flexibility and choice. These issues about restrictions on social life may be more difficult for Deaf parents
These comments appear to be consistent with experiences reported by hearing parents also.
These comments would appear to be fairly common to the general experience of parenthood
Routine/ Habits (Domestic)
Although these comments do not appear to be exceptional, it would be interesting to consider what the consequences of these domestic/routine changes are for Deaf households and whether the consequences are different than for hearing households.
Although these are common effects for parents it is quite possible that Deaf parents disproportionately suffer from the effects eg comments below indicate the lack of access to information about benefit entitlements; and also the relative socio-economic position of Deaf households in comparison with hearing households
Age related issues with the children
It is quite likely that the family interactions change with the age of the child. The baby is unlikely to pose any specific difficulties for the parents except comparatively in the sense that the parents have little access to information, guidance or support from services. As the child begins to come into contact with other children at nursery school and then into school, the pull of the hearing-speaking community becomes much stronger. At this time a dilemma develops for the parents in terms of insisting on sign language use at home while at the same time needing the childs spoken language skills for informal interpreting of television, when visitors call and even in telephone use. By the time the child is a teenager, there are much more severe difficulties for both child and parents. At this time, the child will have mostly hearing friends and will have the dominating influence of the school and the educational process. This is significant since it will also tend to marginalise the parents as the child may feel that the parents school experiences are irrelevant to that of hearing schools. For the parents, managing an adolescent may be a huge burden when the childs access to English and speech may upset the power relations at home.
These comments demonstrate that there are questions of adjustment that arise for Deaf parents when the child is hearing. There does not appear to be a particular problem over accepting that the child is hearing, rather difficulties arise in dealing with the consequences of that hearingness in a Deaf household. Deaf parents appear to be acutely aware that they are having to address something about which they have no knowledge e.g. the music comment below. They are also aware that they need very specific guidance to overcome confusions and worries with regard especially to appropriate communication and their childs development of language. These comments also indicate the lack of adjustment of services to meet the needs of Deaf parents.
Access and Information
Although lack of access to information is a common concern for Deaf people, the experience of parenthood puts this experience into sharp focus. There are three issues with regard to access and information: (i) not being aware of the information needed in the first place; (ii) being aware of the information wanted/needed and not being able to obtain it; (iii) having approached the information source, only receiving partial information.
Clearly, this touches only the surface of a very significant aspect of Deaf peoples lives. The family in which a Deaf person grows up can be something of a problem for the Deaf person. Here we see there are also considerable issues to be faced when the Deaf parents have children of their own. Since there are no particular services focused on the Deaf parents of hearing children, then we have never examined the issues involved. There is a great deal more to be discovered and more research will be forthcoming.